Opinion: we need to develop ways to spread the message that fish is healthy, tasty and green

One of my hobbies is soccer training. After each session, I try to remind my young players the importance of exercise and a balanced diet. One day, I asked them "how many times per week do you eat fish?". One lad replied "do fish fingers count?". "Of course not" I wanted to tell him, but I said yes to him, as eating even that over-processed type of fish is better than nothing.

Let's have a look at the wider picture now. Ireland is an island, there are plenty of beautiful shores and beaches where people can walk by the sea, swim and …fish. Alas, the consumption of fish in Ireland is still low. Why is this?

Before moving to Ireland, my family and I lived in Greece, where we fished and snorkelled every summer. When the boys grew a bit older and could handle a fishing gun, a period of spear fishing started. Hunting for fish is an amazing experience. It makes you part of the sea, it encourages you to observe the sea creatures and view the world from a different angle. One of the messages I have tried to pass to the boys is that we have to eat what we catch so they started eating fish at a young age and developed a taste for it. Living now in Limerick, we are quite lucky and can find sea bream and sea bass from the Med, fish with pure sea flavour. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Mooney Goes Wild, why some fish are picky eaters

But the question remains: what is Ireland's problem with fish? In a comparison of fish consumption per capita in 158 countries in 2013, the Maldives ranked the highest with 166 kg followed by Iceland (90.1 kg) and Hong Kong (71 kg). Irish people consumed just 22.3 kg per capita. Fish consumption per capita in Ireland reached an all time high of 24.6 kg in 2001 and an all time low of 7.10 kg in 1961. When compared to Ireland's main peers, fish consumption per capita in Canada amounted to 22.4 kg, 34.7 kg in France, 90.1 kg in Iceland and 19.1 kg in United Kingdom in 2013. Ireland has been ranked 48th within the group of 160 countries in terms of fish consumption per capita, 4 places behind the position seen 10 years ago. 

The comparison between Iceland and Ireland is striking because fish consumption is four times higher in Iceland. One may argue about the meat availability in Ireland at low prices, which is valid to some extent, but the reasons for the low fish consumption in Ireland are much deeper.

Part of the problem is the food pyramid which is taught to all secondary students in Ireland. In this pyramid, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and nuts are grouped together. This grouping conveys the message that these foods have equivalent nutritional value. As we have explained before, this message is simply wrong.

From RTÉ 1's Prime Time, Richard Downes on how the Irish fishing industry is likely to be affected by Brexit

Last year, the author and others published a scientific paper titled "Changing the Irish dietary guidelines to incorporate the principles of the Mediterranean diet: proposing the MedÉire diet". We did so with the hope to challenge the current wrong dietary guidelines. Alas, nothing happened. The pyramid remained the same and it is still wrong. 

The message conveyed is that eating fish is like eating meat and poultry. Despite all the scientific evidence that suggests that fish is an excellent source of anti-inflammatory and cardioprotective compounds and therefore fish is more nutritious than any type of meat, all meat and fish are grouped together. With poultry and fish on the same shelf in the pyramid, one may wonder "why would I spend at least €10/kg to buy fish when I can buy a 1.5kg chicken for €4-5?". Therefore, the dietary message turns to cost argument and then the fish case is lost.

So what can we do?

Modify the Irish food pyramid 

It is of paramount importance to correct the Irish food pyramid and give fish its correct place in the pyramid; highlighting the high nutritional value of fish and seafood is a matter of urgency. It is also important to differentiate fresh fish from processed fish products like breaded fish or fish fingers. 

From RTÉ Learn, exploring Irish fish stocks

Educate young people 

The younger we start to educate children and young students the better. Today in Ireland, one in four boys and one in five girls are obese and it is crucial to address this problem. It is not easy, but it is doable. Everybody likes to have processed convenience food. Our taste buds have become used to these tastes and so real fish tastes exotic. We need to start exposing primary school students to healthy tastes. By "training" their taste buds, there is hope that they can develop healthy eating habits. The best way to educate young kids is through experiment and play - teaching them and cooking with them the food we eat can make a big difference.

Promote fish for all 

A variety of initiatives to promote could be organised in schools, universities, supermarkets and workplaces. Companies have a key role to play here as the health of employees and their families should be a top priority. You could have fish BBQs in the summer or food quizzes in rainy days. Ensuring that fresh fish is available as a choice would be a positive start.

Fish is a green food

We need to promote the fact that fish is a green food and much greener than meat. People are more aware about the food they eat, where it's sourced and how it's grown. Everybody wants to learn more about the origin of our food. 

Fish is usually caught locally and the distance from the catching point to the retailer is usually not long. Of course, there is fish and seafood that are sold in EU and China, but we support can our economy and environment by choosing fresh Irish fish with very few food miles.

We need to encourage young people to develop the healthy habit of eating fresh (not processed) fish. 

The feed conversion ratio (FCR) is an indicator that is commonly used in all types of farming which can provide a good indication of how efficient a feed or a feeding strategy can be. It's the mathematical relationship between the input of the feed that has been fed and the weight gain of a population. The lower the FCR, the higher the weight gain obtained from the feed. If FCR = 1, this means that we produce 1kg of a species with 1kg of feed.

When applied to aquatic animals, FCR is generally lower than that of land animals so we need less feed to produce the same amount of food. Fish do not require drinking water. Therefore, both the carbon and the water footprints of fish is superior to those of animals.

Average FCR
Omnivorous fish - 1.6
Farmed carnivorous marine - 1.45
Salmonids - 1.1
Pig - 2.75
Broiler (chicken) - 2.0
Beef cattle - 6.0
Dairy cattle - 8.0

Fish is healthy, tasty and green and we need to develop ways to spread across this message and encourage young people to develop the healthy habit of eating fresh (not processed) fish. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ